An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
PAPUA New Guinea, like other countries with a rich variety of plant and animal life, has received a lot of money for biodiversity preservation and conservation.
A notable donor is the United Nations Global Environmental Facility (GEF). When PNG ratified the Rio Convention in 1993, GEF grants totalling nearly $US35 million that leveraged $US63 million in co-financing were given to PNG for nine national projects.
These included five projects in biodiversity, three in climate change and one multi-focal project. But how much conservation has PNG achieved with such large sums of money?
Currently, there are 56 protected areas. Of these 33 are wildlife management areas established under the Fauna Protection Act while the rest are national parks, sanctuaries and memorial parks established under the National Parks Act and the Sanctuaries and Fauna Protected Area Act.
Until recently, one conservation area had also been established under the Conservation Areas Act.
These protected areas are situated on state land and were acquired between the 1970s and 1980s – none in the last two decades and all before the availability of the GEF money.
Similarly, almost all wildlife management areas were established in the 1990s using some GEF money, but none in the recent past. The Conservation Areas Act was not implemented until recently.
If conservation is about acquiring land as protected areas, then PNG has failed dismally. The protected areas occupy a tiny 2.8% of the PNG landmass.
If conservation is about protecting wildlife then this is another dismal effort. Notable wildlife sanctuaries established in the 1970s and 1980s only exist on paper.
Baiyer Wildlife Sanctuary is not on the tourist maps anymore, nor is the Wau Ecological Institute and the Moitaka Wildlife Park in Port Moresby.
If conservation was meant to be an alternate development option to environmentally destructive development, then the previous conservation projects (like the Lak Integrated Conservation and Development Project in New Ireland Province) show that conservation will never compete with extractive industries in fulfilling the people’s developmental aspirations.
If conservation was about sustainable management of resources, there is no way of measuring the impact of a sustainable management project because stories are still being told of people hunting wildlife to low numbers.
There is also evidence of large scale destructive logging practice in wildlife management areas.
Government efforts in conservation have been found wanting. The low budgets allocated to conservation year after year, the lack of new protected areas in the last two decades and the issuance of logging and mining license in conservation areas show that conservation is a low priority to the government.
What is it that we are trying to achieve with conservation in PNG, when conservation projects are obviously not achieving success? Could it be that we are measuring the wrong target? What is conservation in PNG anyway?
Conservation seems to be an alien concept in Melanesia. Activities like hunting, mating, eating – all have a designation in the local language but not preservation of nature.
Nature conservation seems to an unintended, outcome of low population, benign harvesting technology and fear of the unknown.
Intentionally looking after nature was never given much thought until the Western scientists brought the concept to PNG.
Isolated in a small hamlet in the forest, to the people the world was the forest bordered by tribal enemies on all sides. There was no way for people to appreciate that they were also global citizens contributing to global well-being.
The precautionary view of conservation was non-existent because there was no importance attached to a theory of extinction when the people were surrounded by vast forests. They were not aware that population growth and climate change was changing their landscape and their future.
The conservation ethos of conserving biodiversity because of its inherent value was non-existent. The priority of local people was on species of utilitarian value.
Furthermore, there was no observable urgency for conservation to ensure food security. Surrounded by the vast forest, the prevailing knowledge was that there is enough for now and there will still be enough for the future.
Even the posterity value of conservation is not shared by Melanesians. They expend energy to maximise harvests and so strengthen social relationships and alliances which, through reciprocity, provide support in times of need.
So if conservation is an alien concept in Papua New Guinea, do we need it?
Yes of course. Conservation is a pre-emptive measure against encroaching environmentally destructive activity for economic development that serves only a minority.
Conservation is the last hope to protect the livelihoods of more than three-quarters of Papua New Guineans who still depend on the forest and its products.
That being the case, how can we implement successful conservation projects in PNG?
The thrust of conservation should not be about nature, but about changing people’s attitudes toward nature.
Conservation in Melanesia and in PNG should be about education that makes the link between people and the consequences of their actions on their natural resources; actions that will eventually impact upon their livelihood.
At the same time, people must be given alternatives so they can minimise their dependence on the forest. Scientific knowledge is the tool that can be used to inform the sustainable management strategies.
Last, but not the least, new conservation interventions - including the money donated - must go to the local people on the ground. They must be decision makers and not mere observers – after all, it is the people who live on the land and their actions which will determine the outcome of conservation efforts. Therefore, they need to own their actions.
Some of that money must enable local level government to make its own conservation laws as well as determine appropriate penalties for offenders.
With a clear understanding of what conservation looks like in PNG, future conservation efforts can be planned so that there is a realistic target to measure success.
This will also ensure that Papua New Guinea get value for all the foreign currency pouring into conservation efforts